Back in Sitka, taking a breath with the family before traveling around Alaska to tour with the book, a question keeps coming back: do we as writers take on certain responsibilities as a result of the act of creation? And if so, how to fulfill these responsibilities?
For starters, I think what we’re doing as story-makers – writing fiction – matters. There are stakes, and we have a responsibility to honor these stakes. This means bearing witness, and, to quote Rilke, “to trust in what is difficult.” Homer, the bards of Ireland, troubadours in Southern France knew this – they took their bumps and wrote, or recited like hell about it, as the case may be. Their storytelling certainly was act of engagement with the wider world. Of course the writer has the responsibility, first and foremost, to tell a personal truth, to write from the core of the self. But what if this core ignores the world at large, and the awfulness in it? How can you justify writing about the beauty of the Charles Bridge if people are being incinerated an hour away? Writing is not, and cannot be an absolute moral value.
I’ve written political pieces for the New York Times and Huffington Post, but also have had the great pleasure of seeing the novel land with people. While the op-eds create a quick, visceral response, the novel (as I've been able to see it) taps into something different, a deeper current. People tell back their stories. It connects deep within us, into some underground river perhaps we’d been ignoring for too long.
Bottom line: we find ourselves confronted by something terrible playing out before our eyes. An ecological holocaust, how about that? Are we duty-bound to write about it? I would never be so presumptuous as to construct rules of engagement for the written word. And yet art that claims to be sufficient, exempt, autonomous, a universe unto itself, is problematic – and not in a fancy, interesting postmodern way. Indeed it’s part and parcel of the type of thinking that brought us to our current impasse – impasse is the wrong word, that brought us into the current horror we’re witnessing today. Sea lions beaching themselves in almond orchards, waiting to die. The starfish die-off slowly moving its way northward up the west coast. Or the sea lice on salmon from fish farms in British Columbia, the yellow cedar die-off, glaciers crumbling, a familiar, depressing list. To turn the question around, how can we NOT insert a moral component to the work we’re doing? And how can we not take exception with work that privileges human consciousness over and above the world we live in?
Cormac McCarthy looks the holocaust in the eye when he writes about the brook trout smelling of moss, and on the backs of the fish “vermiculite patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming” in The Road. Anne Michaels does it figuratively, in her poetry measuring the weight of oranges, or in her novel Fugitive Pieces, as she contemplates how humanism and an engagement with the sensual world of Greece can heal the wounds of the Holocaust. I was reading Howard Norman the other day and came across a passage in his essay “I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place,” when he discusses an Inuit man wailing at Sedna, a god who has created a storm, putting a floatplane takeoff at risk.
[The Inuit man] had worked himself nearly to tears. Again, I didn’t know for which trespass he was asking pardon – with humankind there were so many and they occurred so frequently – nor did I know if I should even have been looking at him. What is the proper decorum in the presence of such a dramatic and intimate petition for mercy from invisible forces?
Meanwhile, I helped his son, Peter Shaimayuk, load five electric guitars and several sacks of mail into the cargo hold. The guitars were going to Winnipeg for repair.
Here I find a nuts-and-bolts story of guitars needing repair in Winnipeg, but one that is constructed
out of a writerly core that has in mind and considers, with every word, how we as humans orient ourselves to an uncertain and crumbling world that we have created for ourselves. A good example of environment being told through story.
I do believe the act of writing, at its core, is about granting essence and urgency and even personhood to the natural world around us. To make it come alive, so we can taste it, feel its winds on the sides of our neck, taste the brine, all of it. To acknowledge how we are hitched into a world that we are destroying. And a writing that furthers our illusion of autonomy is morally compromised. I believe that. And perhaps sitting down this evening, and working this through, brought me to this conclusion. Maybe I'll change my mind, but after this book tour of eleven cities, meeting folks in the literary community, reviewers, readers, I do think this.
Here's a quote I love from Adam Gopnik: “We gawk and stare as the painters slice off their ears and down the booze and act like clowns. But we rely on them to make up for our own timidity, on their courage to dignify our caution. We are spectators in the casino, placing bets; that’s the nature of the collaboration that brings us together, and we can sometimes convince ourselves that having looked is the same as having made, and that the stakes are the same for the ironic spectator and the would-be saint. But they’re not. We all make our wagers, and the cumulative lottery builds museums and lecture halls and revisionist biographies. But the artist does more. He bets his life.”
is the author of the novel The www.alaskanlaundry.com, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. A recipient of a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation, and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Fundacion Valparaiso, and Ragdale, he is currently a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. He has had work in the New York Times, Ploughshares, Narrative Magazine, Popular Woodworking, The Huffington Post, and has recorded commentaries for NPR. Raised in Philadelphia, he took the Greyhound west at the age of 19, ending up in Sitka, Alaska. He graduated from Oxford University, where he boxed for the Blues team, then returned to Alaska to commercial fish. He was a general contractor for seven years in Philadelphia, before heading back to Sitka, where he now lives, commercial fishing and renovating a WWII tugboat. |